In 2019, “The Amazon is Burning” became a popular headline that captivated worldwide attention. While 2019 was the worst year seen in the last decade, wildfires in the Amazon are a longstanding problem with complex causes and big environmental consequences.
Historically, people have been conducting controlled burns in Amazonia for thousands of years, primarily to clear space for agriculture, hunt game, encourage economic wild species, and fertilize soil.1 Today, some indigenous people and local communities continue to practice sustainable burning for these purposes, particularly in savanna and dry deciduous regions of Amazonia, where fire is also be used as a forest management tool to limit the potential for catastrophic fires.2
Despite this long history of anthropogenic burning, most Amazon fires that occur today are unsustainable and dangerous to the Amazon and its people. Due to their large-scale and uncontrolled nature, fires in the Amazon rainforest disrupt local weather patterns, rapidly release greenhouse gases, threaten biodiversity, and endanger human health through air pollution.
Drivers of Amazon Wildfires
The primary driver of wildfires in the Amazon rainforest is deforestation driven by economic opportunities. Agriculture, mining, logging, transportation routes and beef production incentivize people to clear the rainforest. Additionally, many farmers in the Amazon burn their fields to reduce pests and clear space for the next cycle of crops. Most people use a technique called slash-and-burn, where they cut foliage, let it dry out, then burn it to clear space. Slash-and-burn activities can generate additional fires by spreading to surrounding areas.
In Brazil, wildfires and deforestation have been rising since 2015, in part due to an economic recession that pushed more poor Brazilians into logging and other illegal economies. Current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a vocal opponent of environmental NGOs, has rolled back environmental and indigenous protections. Many critics claim these lax environmental policies have encouraged landowners and landgrabbers to illegally burn forests.3
Several environmental factors exacerbate the severity of fires and weaken the rainforest’s buffers against them. Droughts, whose incidence are intensified by climate change, lead to years with particularly out-of-control wildfires. For example, in 2010, a major drought caused over 57,000 fires and burned over 43,000 square miles in the Brazilian Amazon, according to Brazil’s Institute for Space Research.4 As biodiversity and forest are lost from habitat fragmentation, fires, climate change and other man-made factors, the forest dries out and rainfall decreases, causing even more drought and wildfires.
Impacts of Amazon Wildfires
Although in certain areas, such as temperate forests and savannahs, controlled burnings can be an effective forest management tool, plants and animals in the Amazon rainforest are not adapted to tolerate fires.5 Wildfires disrupt the Amazon’s hydrological cycle by reducing transpiration from trees and drawing moisture from the air, which can contribute to more severe dry seasons. These conditions create negative feedback loops of droughts, fire and increased temperatures, which makes foliage more susceptible to burning, fires, etc., thus continuing the process.
Forest fires also release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane back into the atmosphere. Recent research showed that forest fires account for a substantial portion of carbon emitted from the Brazilian Amazon, with around one billion tons emitted during drought years.6 This is particularly concerning in light of a recent study, which found that, for the first time in recorded history, a portion of the Brazilian Amazon is releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than it’s taking in, making it no longer a carbon sink.7
Fires also directly affect the plants, animals and the people who live there. The Amazon is home to more than 30 million people, including over 350 indigenous and ethnic groups. Wildfires can displace habitats, wipe out food sources, and cause disproportionate health effects from air pollution.8
Fires remain one of the biggest threats to the well-being of the Amazon. Though the rainforest is far removed from most of the world, it affects global weather patterns and contains a significant amount of the earth’s biodiversity. You can help the Amazon by supporting indigenous groups, fighting on the frontlines of the Amazon, donating to organizations, supporting them and other research initiatives, shopping more responsibly, and sharing information.
To more ideas on how you can help, visit Amazon Aid’s Activate page.
- Erickson C.L. (2008) Amazonia: The Historical Ecology of a Domesticated Landscape. In: Silverman H., Isbell W.H. (eds) The Handbook of South American Archaeology. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-74907-5_11
- Jayalaxshmi Mistry (2019) Amazon fires: Indigenous people show fire can be used sustainably. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/amazon-fires-indigenous-people-show-fire-can-be-used-sustainably-122493
- Andrew Moore (2019). Amazon Rainforest Fires: Everything You Need to Know. NC State University College of Natural Resources News. https://cnr.ncsu.edu/news/2019/09/amazon-rainforest-fires-everything-you-need-to-know/
- Luciana Magalhaes and Samantha Pearson (August 2019). I Thought the World Was Ending’: What’s Fueling the Amazon Rainforest Fires: Deforestation pits environmentalists against a defiant president and revives conspiracy theories about foreign interference. https://www.wsj.com/articles/i-thought-the-world-was-ending-whats-fueling-the-amazon-rainforest-fires-11567224081
- Evans, Kate. (2019). Ancient Farmers Burned the Amazon, but Today’s Fires are Very Different. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/ancient-humans-burned-amazon-fires-today-entirely-different
- Aragão, L.E.O.C., Anderson, L.O., Fonseca, M.G. et al. 21st Century drought-related fires counteract the decline of Amazon deforestation carbon emissions. Nat Commun 9, 536 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-017-02771-y
- Covey, Kristofer, et al. (2021). Carbon and Beyond: The Biogeochemistry of Climate in a Rapidly Changing Amazon. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/ffgc.2021.618401/full
- Hanbury, Shanna. (2020). Survival of Indigenous communities at risk as Amazon fire season advances. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/09/survival-of-indigenous-communities-at-risk-as-amazon-fire-season-advances/